Marley & Me

“Marley & Me” would probably be a fine man-and-his-dog film if it actually were a man-and-his-dog film. But it isn’t. It’s an anemic comic-drama about a dull couple searching for happiness, and they happen to have a dog. Sometimes the dog takes over the movie, and the movie perks up for a while. Then the dog becomes a background character, and the movie flatlines. The lesson we learn: Either be a dog movie, or be something else, but don’t try to be both.

It’s based on the bestselling memoir by John Grogan, the “Me” of the title, and it begins in 1990 with newlyweds John (Owen Wilson) and Jennifer (Jennifer Aniston) buying an adorable yellow Labrador puppy named Marley. The dog’s sale price is discounted, presumably because even though he is only a few weeks old, he is already known by the owner to be disobedient and mischievous.

Many of the early scenes focus on Marley’s energetic but unmalicious refusal to conform to domestic dog norms. He tears up everything he can get his mouth on. He barks ceaselessly during thunder storms, which occur frequently in South Florida, where the Grogans live. He is notorious among dogsitters and neighbors. There is leg-humping, naturally. Some of this stuff is precious and amusing, liable to entertain young children — but children really shouldn’t be watching this movie, since it’s actually for adults.

The Grogans adore Marley but are exasperated by his rambunctious, destructive behavior. They put forth almost no effort to train him — and sure enough, he turns out to be a terrible dog! They remind me of parents who do nothing to discipline their children, then act like the kids’ awful behavior was completely unpreventable.

John and Jennifer work at competing newspapers, he as a news reporter, she as a features writer. John is promoted by his boss (Alan Arkin, in a thankless role) to be a columnist, which disappoints John because he wants to write hard news, bring down corruption, infiltrate drug cartels, etc. But columns are popular, especially when they’re about naughty dogs, and John allegedly has a knack for telling humorous stories. Meanwhile, he and Jen start having kids, which means Jen has to give up her career and stay home and grow resentful.

The film covers a span of about 15 years, from 1990 to the mid-2000s, though none of the characters seem to age or change their hairstyles, except for the young Grogan children. And speaking of them, the film provides exactly one brief scene showing their devotion to Marley, then expects us to feel their sorrow when Marley gets sick. Were it not for that scene, we’d have thought the kids considered Marley a piece of furniture that they happen to share a house with.

And that is the film’s basic problem: it doesn’t know what kind of movie it is. Sometimes Marley is the focal point; other times he is merely a detail barking offscreen. The director, David Frankel (“The Devil Wears Prada”), tries to have it both ways, hoping we’ll be as interested in John and Jen’s marital struggles as we are in Marley’s hijinks. It probably goes without saying that, well, we aren’t. Wilson and Aniston are Hollywood’s version of Wonder bread — familiar, likable, but bland — and the film’s final assertion that Marley has taught the Grogans something about life rings hollow, since nothing leading up to that point has indicated any such thing.

C (2 hrs., 4 min.; PG, some vulgarity and innuendo, a little profanity, very brief partial nudity.)